If you thought ESPN analyst Matt Williamson’s path to becoming a paid evaluator of talent was unusual, consider NFL Draft Scout.com senior analyst Chad Reuter. The Wisconsin native learned about the craft of personnel evaluation from a decade of interactions with NFL scouts and general managers. Although he lacks a football background, he managed to transform a hobby into a job because of his tremendous analytical skills, sincere passion for the game, and a veteran scout’s work ethic.
In this multi-part conversation, Reuter and I spent a couple of hours discussing a variety of topics related to player evaluation. In Part I of this conversation, Chad and I discuss why he enjoys studying offensive line play, evaluating technique versus results, and balancing these two behaviors with the craft of projecting a player’s future in the NFL. In this portion of our discussion we cover his path to studying football as a full-time job, a defensive position that is difficult to evaluate, and why “instincts” and “intangibles” may not be innate after all.
Waldman:Tell me about your background and how you got into this profession.
Reuter: I came into it kind of backwards. I’m not Mr. Athlete by any stretch. I was not a player. But I knew enough about the game. I think most athletes who get into scouting or work in a front office have the initial advantage of having played, but then they have to learn how to analyze what they are seeing when they are watching film. Obviously some of them may know their position, but they don’t know all of the positions. I came in backwards. I had the analytic skills and then I applied them to football.
I had a fan site called Packerdraft.com and I started in in 2000. I started applying my analytic skills to football in terms of what was being seen on the field, but also looking at the data side – analyzing trends and trying to figure out what some of the numbers really mean. So I started doing that and it earned me opportunities to work with teams doing some consulting. After a few years of that, I left my state government gig to do this full-time.
Waldman: What was that gig?
Reuter: I was a research analyst for the department of transportation. My education is in economics and public policy analysis.
Waldman: With that kind of education and position you must have a fairly extensive understanding of statistics.
Reuter: My job was more or less to ferret out information that was helpful for our decision makers in the building – not just putting a bunch of numbers in front of people. I spent a lot of time pointing to things that some people said had merit, but actually didn’t. Most of the time I was telling people that statistics could be misinterpreted and used to mislead people than actually used to help!
I find it also being the same thing I do with football. Somebody is trying to tell you that a player got 1400 yards last year, but it took him 350 carries and he fumbled 8 times. I’m trying to make sure that people understand what the numbers mean and not just try to compile numbers just because they think that’s what it takes to do a good analysis.
Going from state government to working with teams is very very similar. Trying to interpret numbers more than just trying to weight out numbers is going to give you the answer. A lot of the same things I was doing in my old job transferred over to the new work that I was doing. As time went on, I started doing more scouting and film watching because it is tough to analyze data on a subject in which you are not proficient. I just felt like I had to know even more about that side of things to really make my analysis worthwhile.
Waldman: Tell me about the transition from your Packers fan site to NFL Draft Scout.com
Reuter: The transition was more or less fan site to working for teams only. Then eventually my work and networking helped me land this job with NFL Draft Scout.com. It was a networking thing that happened and I decided to take that opportunity on full-time. Then, a couple of years ago, NFLDraftScout.com began partnering with CBSSports.com to provide their NFL Draft coverage. It’s been a great opportunity for me, and I think beneficial to CBS.
Waldman: Let’s talk more evaluation. It’s universally known among most fans that the quarterback position is regarded as the most difficult to evaluate. Do you agree?
Reuter: The position is hard to evaluate. On the other hand, the likelihood of finding a really good QB is so small – especially outside the first round – that in some respects it’s easier to narrow down the better prospects. You can get rid of so many quarterbacks that just don’t have the physical skills to do it.
You’ll always have the Tom Brady exception, but it doesn’t happen than often. And Brady always had the physical skills, so I wasn’t that shocked. So in some sense it is almost easier than people say. The real difficulty is taking the top five quarterbacks and deciding which one is going to be the star.
Waldman: Other than quarterback, is there a position that is difficult to scout that we don’t hear about?
Chad Reuter: As a general statement, a position that is difficult to project is safety, especially those that don’t spend most of their time in the box. Mostly because safeties are just not challenged enough on tape. You can say this about corners too because they have the same problem.
First of all, for most people not evaluating for a team, you’re doing most of your scouting on network coverage. If you get game film it’s great because you can see a lot more of the secondary and of course, this also provides a lot more insight into the quarterback. But as I said, safeties are very difficult to project because they are just not challenged enough.
There are a lot of defensive schemes that play Cover 2 where the safety is just sitting there waiting to come in front of the receiver. Sure, a safety can light up a guy when the receiver is five yards in front of him and he can see the ball coming at him. But I think you’ll see that teams really have a difficult time finding above average safeties because they’re difficult to evaluate and it is a hard position to play.
They are expected to sometimes be in man coverage, have the range to go from sideline to sideline, and play center field. If you’re in a lot of Cover 2 you have to have discipline to come up on underneath routes yet still be able to handle the multiple verticals at you. You’re often caught between a rock and a hard place at that position.
It’s a difficult position – it’s underrated in difficulty to evaluate and play.
Waldman: What’s interesting as I listen to you talk about safeties is it sparked my memory of a recent conversation I had with former NFL scout Dave Razzano. He often discussed the merit of judging players by feel. As he described what he meant by that, I clarified that feel as “consistent behaviors.” This sounds like something Malcolm Gladwell would discuss in far more intelligent detail, but I think there is an intuitive aspect to how players process. You have to account for it when you evaluate a player. How they move. How they process information. The subtleties that they exhibit in situations that others don’t. Sometimes that’s hard to categorize when you try to communicate that to people.
Reuter: Yeah. It gets thrown under instincts often and it’s not this innate ability. You can say that partially, but it is not all of it.
Waldman: Let’s talk about that because when I hear the word intangibles it makes me cringe. To me what we’re discussing is tangible. It’s an ability. The player just demonstrated a behavior that is more difficult to describe.
Reuter: It’s hard to quantify, but I think you’re right instincts in some way is a catch-all when you’re talking about a guy who can process information quickly. This isn’t just a football thing, but its something that gets used in science all the time. An animal does something and a scientist labels it is an instinct. It’s in its genes and they leave it at that.
I think it’s something that teams get a little worried about when a player doesn’t have much football experience. When you combine a high number of reps with an ability to process information quickly that is a formula of sorts. You get an instinctive football player.
Waldman: To borrow a little bit from psychology, there’s this concept of imprinting. It’s a concept that is generally associated with the development of human beings and animals at an early age. It’s an observation-based learning that happens at a high rate and then these attitudes and behaviors a human or animal expresses is based on this imprinting.
Reuter: A learned behavior can often be misconstrued as genetic…
Waldman: Yep. What’s interesting is that this can happen at any age so you can see how this concept might have a role with players. The way a player processes a situation might be so sophisticated that you know that they had to get that from early coaching or lots of observation that comes from being around football all the time, beginning at an early age. It may almost seem like the luck of the draw. In some ways it is because they got to see things on the football field that others haven’t, but in some ways those numerous opportunities are a factor.
Reuter: That’s right. You know what? A lot of people will talk about small school prospects and they say these players won’t receive the coaching at the lower levels that they will at the highest levels and I think that’s mostly true. But small school prospects are not dealing with difficult or complicated schemes. They are also not dealing with speed of the game.
Now, “speed of the game” is also a catch-all term, but it’s not just about 40-times. It’s about dealing with the ability of your opponent and yourself to execute parts of a scheme in a way that makes it difficult for the opponent to react. The funny thing is when you look at small school players and major program players picked in the same round of the draft, the small school players will produce as much or more on average because in part they are just picked too low.
People don’t think they can adjust to the NFL game. Sometimes it’s just because they haven’t been forced to do it because they have been at that lower level. They have a higher ability to learn than they are given credit for. This brings is back to the point that you don’t just try to look on tape at what a guy does and doesn’t do, but you have to project it.
Waldman: A great example of a guy I remember missing on for exactly those reasons was Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace. He wasn’t a small school player, but when he told the media that he didn’t learn about the position of wide receiver from a technique standpoint until Houston Nutt’s staff arrived, I regarded him as such. I remember watching Wallace and liking his athleticism and toughness, but he wasn’t polished. There were signs of potential development, but how do you know?
Reuter: You don’t.
Waldman: Then he caught on quickly with the Steelers and demonstrated things I didn’t see him do at Ole Miss.
Reuter: And it goes the other way. Mike Wallace was picked in the third round because the Steelers had specific things that they wanted him to do and they thought he could do it. And if you don’t ask him to do things that you know he can’t do then you are going to get a lot more out of the player!
In my job, any media job, the difficult part is that you have to evaluate a player’s ability to do anything whereas an NFL scout is looking for a guy who can do specific things. So when I’m evaluating a player, I’m going to say Mike Wallace is best when he is doing x,y,and z, but you have to be able to say whether he is going to be able to go down the sideline and beat Darrelle Revis deep.
He’s not going to be able to do that. But he’s going to be able to find holes in zones and making himself available and make the first defender miss. He’s been a lot of tougher after the catch with the Steelers than most people thought he’d be.
I think it actually goes both ways. You have to project what he could do at the next level and you also have to understand that he doesn’t have to be able to do everything at the next level to be a success. He has to fill his role very well.
Waldman: The rest lies with the decision-making of an organization that chooses him. If you pick a big, physical guy who is great on perimeter routes and fades, but you’re trying to use him on more routes inside where his agility isn’t a good match for digs, skinny posts, and timing routes in the zones then you’ve made the wrong decision.
Reuter: Or worse, you’ve drafted a guy like that and the coaching staff turns over. The guy ends up not meeting expectations, but he was put in a position that did not match his strengths. That’s why teams with some kind of continuity have the most success.
Waldman: This is fun stuff.
Reuter: Yeah, I like having these conversations because it makes me think about what I’m doing. It’s always good to evaluate your process.